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Back to Archives | Back to December 2009 Contents 

The IMPACT Principles: A Model of Interpersonal Communication for Law Enforcement

By Lieutenant Brian D. Fitch, Ph.D., Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department; and Randolph Means, Partner, Thomas & Means, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Immediate Past Chair, IACP Legal Officers Section

aw enforcement officers are in the problem-solving business. Many of the problems that law enforcement officers confront are solved through effective communication. Not surprisingly, the more skilled officers are at interacting with the public and, in many cases, reducing emotional tension, the less likely they are to generate complaints or lawsuits, and the more effective and productive they will be.

This article offers public contact professionals an easy-to-follow formula for dealing with difficult people, soothing strong emotions, and managing conflict. While the examples are given between officers and citizens, the lessons apply to any contact such as police supervisor to subordinate, executives to boards.

The IMPACT model of interpersonal communication is built around six simple principles that can be applied to virtually any type of law enforcement contact:

“I” recognizes the need to Identify and Manage Emotions.
“M” is for Master the Story.
“P” stands for Promote Positive Behavior.
“A” is for Achieve Rapport.
“C” focuses on the need to Control Your Response.
“T” is for Take Perspective.

While the order may vary, each dynamic is critical when dealing with difficult or angry people, managing conflict, and solving problems.

Identify and Manage Emotions

Most people view themselves as rational, relying mostly on evidence and logic to guide their decisions. However, everything we think, say, and do is influenced by emotion. In police work, it is not a question of whether strong emotions will emerge; rather, it is a question of how to handle these emotions when they do emerge. When experiencing high levels of emotional tension, otherwise reasonable people are often unwilling, and sometimes unable, to reason logically. In many cases, this is because the emotional brain (limbic system) has overridden, or “hijacked” the rational, thinking areas of the brain (neocortex) by activating the body’s survival response.1 If an officer can decrease a person’s emotional tension, the person will typically be more willing and able to listen to reason.

Three simple, effective techniques for decreasing emotional tension are acknowledging, asking questions, and paraphrasing.

Acknowledging: Acknowledgement is founded on the basic human need for recognition and acceptance. When an officer acknowledges a person’s concerns and feelings, the person feels that the officer is trying to help and that the person has valid concerns and problems that matter. Recognizing a person’s concerns as legitimate, together with an appropriate demonstration of empathy, is an important first step toward reducing emotional tension and reaching a constructive resolution.

Acknowledging a person’s feelings and concerns does not necessarily mean that the officer agrees with them. Rather, it means that the officer recognizes these concerns as legitimate (at least to the other person) and, therefore, worthy of further discussion.

Asking Questions: The second technique, asking questions, is effective because it forces people to pause and reflect—in other words, to think. While the simple act of answering questions might not seem very difficult, it requires deliberate mental focus—an activity that forces people to engage the rational, thinking areas of the brain and to turn off the more primitive emotional centers.2 As a general rule, open, reflective questions—queries that require a narrative response—are more useful than simple, closed questions that can be answered with a one- or two-word reply. Questions like, “What happened next?” are generally more effective because they encourage people to think rather than to emote.

Paraphrasing: The final method, paraphrasing, involves demonstrating one’s appreciation of what another person is saying. Paraphrasing allows an officer to acknowledge the other person’s message, to check for understanding, and to correct any confusion. By repeating the message, the officer provides the person with an opportunity to listen to his or her own words. It also communicates that the person has been heard, making repetition less likely. Instead, the person can begin listening, focusing on the officer’s message, and working reasonably toward a solution.

Master the Story

Henry Ford believed that empathy and perspective were key to success, saying, “If there is one key to success, it lies in the ability to see things from the other person’s point of view.” However, seeing things from another person’s perspective is not as simple as it might appear. It requires an authentic desire to learn—that is, a willingness and openness to consider the situation, as well as the context—the thoughts, emotions, and other factors that led to it—from the unique perspective of the person most directly involved.

Often the most difficult aspect of mastering someone’s story is overcoming the attributions, or theories, that we use to explain our own behaviors, as well as others’ actions.

Social psychologists have identified two primary types of attributions: internal and external.3 Internal attribution focuses mostly on a person’s character or personality to explain actions. For example, an officer sees a driver make an erratic lane change and almost strike another vehicle. When the officer stops the vehicle, the driver is abrupt with the officer, leaving the officer to conclude that the driver is nasty and inconsiderate.

In contrast, external attribution looks mostly to situational factors to explain someone’s conduct. A driver changes lanes and almost hits another car, not because the driver is rude or selfish, but because the driver is from out of town, unfamiliar with the roads, or late for a critical appointment.

The natural human tendency to rely heavily on internal attributions to explain behavior—at the expense of external, situational factors—is so prevalent that it has been dubbed the “fundamental attribution error.”4 Relying too heavily on internal attribution can be dangerous because it encourages hasty conclusions and stifles empathy. Too often, people assume that someone is behaving erratically because he or she is erratic—it is just part of their character or personality—when in reality any number of situational factors can be at work.

Because we are aware of the external factors that affect our own behavior, we tend to forgive ourselves more readily than we do others, whose motivations we do not understand.

While mastering the story requires officers to suspend their assumptions, ask questions, and listen carefully to the answers, it also requires that they pay attention to new information, especially when, viewed objectively, it contradicts their assumptions. This is not always easy to do, but it helps to remember that law enforcement is in the problem-solving and customer-service business. An officer who is annoyed by a stream of complaining people is akin to a physician who is irritated by a long line of sick patients. In the same way that good physicians ask questions and gather information before making a diagnosis, effective officers master the story before offering solutions.

Promote Positive Behavior

All human beings share a number of basic needs, including the desire to feel safe and to control their lives. Because these needs are fundamental, people will go to great lengths to protect them. When people feel threatened or controlled, they can act in negative, aggressive, and, in some cases, violent ways to reestablish a sense of safety and self-determination—a phenomenon that behavioral scientists have termed “reactance.”5 For this reason, allowing people to think of something as their own decision or idea (even if it is not absolutely true) can be very useful.

Generally speaking, reactance produces three consequences: it makes people want to perform the forbidden action; it makes people take steps to reclaim their lost freedom; and it makes people feel negatively toward the person who restricted their choices.6 Officers who understand the basic human need for control can use it to their benefit by allowing people to feel as if they are making a voluntary decision to cooperate or comply, whether or not such choices actually exist.

Officers can also help people feel safe by reducing uncertainty, something that can often be accomplished by explaining their decisions and actions, as well as what to expect. The criminal justice system can be intimidating, especially for those who have never before been exposed to its many (sometimes subtle) complexities. Most people know little, if anything, about the policies, procedures, and laws that most officers take for granted.

Finally, officers should focus on separating problems from people.7 Nobody wants to feel stupid, inferior, or wrong. Questioning motives or judgment can threaten individual’s self-esteem and trigger defensiveness and justifications. Officers can avoid such problems by refraining from any form of personal attack, insult, or patronizing behavior.

Rather than attacking someone’s motives or intent (which, at best, the officer can only guess at), officers should concentrate on the person’s objective conduct. For example, “So, you were driving northbound, did not see the red light, and struck the vehicle making a left turn” is more beneficial than stating, “Obviously you weren’t paying attention because, if you were, you would have seen the red light.” Focusing on objective behaviors and workable solutions is less likely to threaten a person’s self-esteem or sense of control, and more likely to promote positive, cooperative behaviors.

Achieve Rapport

Humans tend to react impulsively to difficult situations and people. When confronted with an argumentative or demanding person, for example, some officers may either strike back (“fight fire with fire”) or break off contact altogether. In the first case, if someone is rude or stubborn, the officer responds in kind, falling victim to the “norm of reciprocity”8 and hoping that a “dose of the same medicine” will persuade the person to change his or her attitude.

In the second case, rather than attempting to work through any differences, the officer simply walks away, avoiding the encounter altogether. While these techniques are sometimes effective in a sense, they tend to stifle communication, discourage rapport, and undermine potential cooperation.

Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People and its basic tenets of achieving rapport and dealing with difficult people have not changed: avoid arguing, never criticize, and make people feel important.9

The first principle, avoid arguing, is a lesson that some people never learn. “You can never win an argument,” wrote Carnegie, “because if you lose it, you lose it; and, if you win it, you lose it.” Winning an argument comes at a cost—that is, it takes a toll. You may have proven yourself right, but you often hurt the other person’s pride and cause embarrassment. Tarnishing someone’s self-respect rarely creates positive change, but it often causes stubborn resistance and lasting resentment.

The second rule, never criticize, is also founded on the idea that nobody wants to feel stupid or inferior. As a general rule, criticism is counter-productive because it hurts people’s pride and motivates them to defend their actions, regardless of how wrong they might have been. Since the early 1930s, behavioral psychologists have recognized that rewards are much more effective than punishment at shaping appropriate behaviors.10 People who are rewarded for performing the correct behaviors learn more rapidly and retain significantly more information than those who are punished for bad behavior. Even when people are clearly wrong, effective officers find ways to allow people to save face and to leave the transaction with their pride intact.

The third principle, make people feel important, is an outgrowth of the basic human need to feel special. It is often the need to feel special (important, successful) that motivates people to drive expensive cars, to wear designer clothes, and to buy homes that are much larger than they really need. According to Carnegie, most people are filled with ego, and “history sparkles with amusing examples of famous people struggling for a feeling of importance.” Rather than challenging an ego, officers can significantly increase their influence by asking questions rather than demanding cooperation, complimenting people rather than criticizing them, and apologizing for any inconvenience, as appropriate.

Control Your Response

To effectively manage others’ emotions, officers need to control their own responses. Officers who lose control endanger themselves and others. When dealing with a difficult or emotional person, officers can easily lose objectivity. If an uncooperative citizen makes a nasty comment and the officer responds in kind, the result is a counter-productive cycle of action and reaction that spirals downward until productive communication is no longer possible. While officers might win this battle, they lose the war in broader and more important ways.

The first step officers can take to control their emotional responses is to recognize that each problem really consists of two issues: one practical, the other emotional. 11 Practical issues represent the topic or subject of concern, for example, gaining the cooperation of a difficult motorist or taking a combative subject into custody.

The emotional issue, on the other hand, represents an officer’s affective response to the practical problem, such as anger, frustration, or even fear. An officer’s inability to separate practical problems from affective responses can lead to a host of difficulties. Too often, strong emotions can cloud the real issues and become the sole focus of an officer’s attention—a response that makes the officer less safe and typically does little, if anything, to solve the actual problem.

Officers can learn to better control their emotions by paying closer attention to their word choice. Some cognitive psychologists believe that a person’s emotional response is heavily influenced by word choice and language.12 We constantly talk to ourselves (self-talk) about our feelings and the words we choose can make us more or less upset.

In fact, the language a person uses to describe an event is believed to be one of the factors responsible for the different ways that people respond to the same occurrence. Rather than using strong, emotional language to describe their feelings—for example, “This guy is really pissing me off”—officers can select language with a cooler emotional tone, for example, “This guy’s behavior is inconvenient, but no big deal.”

Officers can also benefit by identifying their “hot buttons”—statements, comments, or actions by others that often anger them. Everyone has hot buttons, and part of managing one’s emotions is recognizing these triggers. A better understanding of what is upsetting to them enables officers to develop and practice more suitable responses. In many cases, this can be accomplished by visualizing potentially difficult encounters along with proper responses, which can be rehearsed mentally in advance. Practicing correct responses, even if only in one’s mind, can help reduce the chances of an officer becoming overly emotional when encountering a hot button in the field.

Finally, because emotions produce a number of physiological changes (increases in heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, muscle tension, and nervous energy), officers can learn to use these cues as a kind of early warning system. Once an officer recognizes these symptoms, measures to restore emotional equilibrium can be taken, such as modifying self-talk, breathing deeply, practicing relaxation, or briefly walking away to regain composure. By doing so, the officer will be better able to manage emotional responses and to avoid a negative emotional spiral.

Take Perspective

Perception is not a simple, straightforward process. Everyone makes choices—some conscious, some unconscious—about what to notice, how to make judgments, and how to see the world.13 Because of this, no two people see things in exactly the same way. In fact, there are often as many different views of an event as there are people who experience it. Too often, officers assume that others think as they think, see the world as they see it, and should behave in the same ways as they behave, given a similar set of circumstances.

The better officers understand another’s perspective, the better able they are to communicate effectively with that person. Understanding another’s perspective begins by acknowledging one’s own assumptions and biases. Arguably the greatest single barrier to understanding is the tendency for people to believe that they see the world as it really is, and not that they see merely their perception of the world.14 Not only do people use their perspective to make sense of their own experiences, but also to interpret the behavior of others.

In addition, most people seldom, if ever, question the accuracy of their worldview or assumptions. Instead, they simply assume that their view is the correct view, and that other people, regardless of their experience, see the world in the same way—and, if they do not, they should.

Officers’ worldviews, beliefs, and assumptions also influence their interactions with others. If an officer believes that someone is difficult or rude, the officer’s assumptions will affect the communication with that person. The officer’s assumptions may influence tone of voice or nonverbal communication in any number of subtle, yet perceptible ways that shape how people interpret the officer’s behavior and, in turn, their response. If a person believes that an officer is rude or inconsiderate, that person is likely to respond discourteously, confirming the officer’s initial assumption that the person is rude—a phenomenon referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy.15 In other words, the officer believes a person is rude, treats the person as a rude individual, and, by doing so, causes the person to be rude.

Taking perspective requires an officer to suspend—as much as possible—any existing assumptions and beliefs, and replace them with a genuine desire to understand the other person’s story. To accomplish this, officers need to ask appropriate open-ended questions and listen carefully to responses, not as a way of finding ammunition for disagreement, but with an authentic desire to understand. As the officer gradually learns more about the external factors that contributed to events, expressing interest in these events will, in many cases, motivate the person to share more.

Predictably, the more an officer listens and understands, the more the officer’s influence increases, often allowing cooperation in situations where previously the officer had little control.

The importance of open-mindedness and tolerance in law enforcement cannot be overstated, especially in the United States. The United States is home to arguably the most ethnically diverse populace in the world, with many cities playing host to some of the largest ethnic populations outside of their native countries. Officers interact almost continuously with people of different cultural backgrounds, beliefs, customs, traditions, and norms. Open-mindedness and tolerance are keys to success in 21st century law enforcement. To better understand and appreciate others, officers should not only tolerate differences, but be eager to learn more about the exciting diversity of people, cultures, and ideas that make America great.


The IMPACT principles offer law enforcement professionals a model for dealing with difficult people, managing conflict, and solving problems. Although the model was presented in linear fashion, it is not a sequential process. When handling a difficult person, officers will usually be engaged in many steps of the process at the same time. For example, officers may be identifying and managing the person’s emotions, controlling their own responses, and mastering the story while, simultaneously, promoting positive behavior and taking perspective. Whatever their order, the IMPACT principles offer law enforcement professionals a valuable tool for improving officers’ safety while increasing their communicative effectiveness and problem-solving abilities. And that, regardless of how you look at it, is good for officers, their agencies, and the public. ■


1For a more complete discussion, see Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).
2For a more detailed explanation, see, for example, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).
3See, for example, Fritz Heider, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships (New York: John Wiley, 1958).
4For a detailed discussion, see Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett, The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior (New York: General Learning Press, 1971).
5See Sharon Brehm and Jack Brehm, Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control (New York: Academic Press, 1981).
6See, for example, Robert Cialdini, “The Science of Persuasion,” Scientific American Mind 14 (January 2004): 70-77.
7For a more complete discussion, see Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
8See Alvin W. Gouldner, “The Norm of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Statement,” American Sociological Review 25 (1960): 161-178.
9See Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (New York: Pocket Books, 1936).
10For a more detailed discussion on rewards, see Alan Kazdin, Behavior Modification in Applied Settings, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001).
11For a more complete discussion of practical and emotional issues, see Lynn Clark, SOS Help for Emotions: Managing Anxiety, Anger and Depression (Kentucky: Parents Press, 1998).
12For a more complete explanation of self-talk, see Albert Ellis and Arthur Lange, How to Keep People from Pushing your Buttons (New York: Citadel Press, 1995).
13See, for example, Douglas Kenrick, Steven Neuberg, and Robert Cialdini, Social Psychology: Goals in Interaction, 4th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2007).
14For a more thorough discussion, see Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York: Free Press, 1989).
15See ,for example, Diane Halpern, Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, 4th ed. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2003).

Author Brian Fitch is the lead subject matter expert for the IMPACT Project, a national consortium of law enforcement agencies and officials interested in the application of the IMPACT Principles to day-to-day police work through evaluation and assessment criteria, as well as training. His master's degree is in communication studies, his doctorate degree in human development. Author Randy Means is the founder of this now ten-year project and continues to oversee it. Comments and questions may be directed to Dr. Fitch at and to Mr. Means at



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 12, December 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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